Prisons Allowed to Permanently Deny Inmates Visits with Family

In 1998, Clarence Easterling, a Wisconsin man, was put on probation after being convicted of sexually assaulting a minor female.  Then, three years later, his daughter was born shortly before he was sentenced to 25 years for armed robbery.  Easterling has tried both in 2004 and 2013 to get his daughter to visit him, but prison officials conditionally blocked the visitation both times, on the grounds he must first complete sex-offender treatment.  (Remember, he was in prison for robbery; not for being a sex offender.)

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(Michael Rougier | Getty Images)

After the unofficial 2013 denial, Easterling sought recourse through the prison but was again rebuffed.  He then filed a lawsuit, claiming the prison was denying him his First Amendment right to free association.

His lawsuit was not successful.  Early this year, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the prison acted in line with the First Amendment.  Although inmates “do not have an absolute right to visitation,” prisons may deny an inmate certain visitation rights if the prison has a “legitimate” reason for doing so.  Notably, Easterling had not received consent from his daughter’s legal guardian for the visit, as the prison requires.  And he did not argue that the prison’s requirement to obtain a minor’s guardian’s consent was not a legitimate restriction on his visitation rights.  Easterling’s lawsuit potentially could have raised that—along with several other challenges—but it did not, and the Court did not pass judgment on them.  We could envision a case in which a prison’s restrictions on visitations might violate the First Amendment, but it appears that Mr. Easterling’s case is not it.

Case: Easterling v. Thurmer, No. 17-1581 (7th Cir. Jan. 5, 2018) (opinion here)

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